Wednesday, 30 March 2011

March 12th - Brsibane. My Birthday and the Japanese Earthquake

It's my birthday today. But I'm not really in the celebrating mood. The Japan earthquake is on all the news channels and it has caused chaos. In fact, we woke up this morning and turned the news straight on to see how the country was fairing. Not too good was the report.

After about an hour of watching the news, we turned the TV off and I turned to Chigu saying, "Haven't you got something you want to say to me," to which she replied: "What? Oh, sorry baby. Happy birthday.

That pretty much sums up the mood.

We rang Chigu's mum last night after Alex informed us hat there had been an earthquake in Japan. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have even known. It took us a while to get through to Chigu's mum on the phone because according to the news, the mobile phone networks pretty much crashed under the load as people tried to ring loved ones. Her mum was in a very highly stressed mood, and seemed terrified. After a little bit of calming down, we found out that everyone in the family was ok, but the TV at Chigu's house had fallen over, scaring the dog Chan-chan, now unwilling to leave her mum's side.

I turned my data roaming on and checked in with my friends on twitter, everyone seeming safe. A former colleague who lives near me in Moriya says that he lost a few plates in the quake, and another informs me that he had a bottle of wine break in his house. Considering that we live near these guys, I'm a little concerned that my TV has fallen down, pulling the PS3 and xbox with it. We can't find out now though, however, Chigu's dad may head down tomorrow to check our place out for us.

I feel kind of bitter-sweet about being in Australia during the earthquake. Bitter because I wish I could have been there to help out, like calming Chigu's mum down. And sweet because at least my mum and dad don't have to worry about me.

In other (much lighter) news...

We went to the koala sanctuary with Alex today.

Chigu had a great time. Although, the first koala she tried to cuddle didn't wanna play. The zoo keeper said that the koala was being a naughty boy, so she went to get another, more cheerful one. This one was much better behaved and we managed to get a great shot.
After Chigu cuddled her koala, we also got to feed some kangaroo and emu that were held in a fairly free roaming area. I was surprised by two things. The kick drum sound that emus make and the fact that kangaroos use their tails as a kind of third leg when they are walking slowly.
In the evening me and Chigu headed into town on our own looking for a nice restaurant to eat at for my birthday. After looking around town for a while we still hadn't found anything  and were beginning to lose faith that there would be somewhere nice. Then we headed to a very posh looking area right on the harbor. It was posh. We couldn't afford the prices, but we didn't give up. After browsing the swanky restaurants for a few minutes, we found one that looked about right. It had pasta that Chigu wanted, and the rest of the menu seemed ok, so we went in.
Chigu ordered king prawn pasta and I had a steak! Oh yes! I really needed some proper food and of course meat! I learnt something quite interesting too. In England we call a meal that combines seafood and steak — 'surf and turf', but in Australia they call it 'reef and beef'. 
I also got my birthday present off Chigu: a ticket to the Cirque Du Soleil in May. I've always wanted to go, and was soooooooooo pleased!! What a great birthday.

Also, that meal was our first non-cheese and crisp sandwich meal for quite some time. It was bloody delicious!!!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

March 10th - Hot Air Ballooning in Cairns

This is the second time I am writing this blog post. I somehow managed not to save the previous version. I hope I can remember what I wrote.flavour

Ok, so today we went hot air ballooning. It was a very early start. Very. This is what time we woke up this morning:
3:30 am!

The bus driver came to pick us up at 4:05. He was a very cheerful German fellow called Gunta who had an accent that reminded me of Herr Lipp from the league of gentleman (he looked nothing like him though, thank god!).

The road on the way was quite winding ad it went up through the mountains. It reminded me a lot of Iroha Zaka in Nikko. As we got closer, we stopped for a quick toilet break and then we went onto the balloon site, which we were told was going to fly today. There was a lot of rain yesterday and  flood warnings on the TV, so we were a bit concerned. But, like I said, the weather seemed clear enough to allow us to fly.

Gunta seemed to know where the site was (of the 60 or so spots available), and so the driver took us into a field down a long dirt track. It was pitch black in the field with only the car headlights showing us where the track was. As there had been a lot of rain in the night, sections of the track were flooded, and with no way to tell how deep the large puddles were, the diver questioned Gunta as to whether we really were on the right track. Gunta reassured the driver telling him this was definitely the site he was told, and so we continued cautiously along the precarious path. My camera decided to run out of batteries, so I couldn't get any photos, but let me tell you, every puddle we went through, I thought we were gonna get stuck.

After traveling down the path for a few minutes we soon saw a massive orange globe glowing in front of us. It was the balloon, and it was huge! As soon as we arrived, Gunta jumped out the car and grabbed a rope, trying to tame the massive beast as it was blown around by the wind. Absolutely manic, and in my opinion the whole 'getting to the balloon' experience was almost better than the flight itself.
We took it in turn to get on the balloon, and of the 20 or so people that actually got in the carriage, it dawned on me that I was the only white guy, and only person that understood English there (remember what I said about the large amount of japanese tourists earlier?). Very strange indeed.

After a lot of flame and extreme noise, the balloon was finally ready to go, and so the pilot (a south African named Johan) told us to hold on as the balloon lifted gracefully off the ground. I managed to get a few pictures out of my camera, but the majority of shots were taken from my iPhone. We were lucky to see a few wile kangaroo jumping around in the bushes and at one point, the pilot told us that there was a good photo opportunity coming up where the balloon was reflected in a marsh below:
We came down with only a few bounces off the ground, and finally stopped. At this point, the pilot looked over to the SUV with trailer that came to collect the balloon, but it had gotten bogged down in the field that we were in (a very wet cattle field), and so he asked if a few of us in the carriage would help him grab a few ropes and tame the deflating balloon. I of course volunteered, but none of the other people in the carriage knew what he was saying, so I let the others know what was going on, and if any of them would help. A young lad said he would, and so we jumped out of the balloon and started to make our way around to the back, when the SUV that was stuck suddenly got free and the help crew arrived. It appeared that we had just jumped into the wet field and messed our shoes up for nothing. I felt pretty bad for asking the young Japanese lad to jump into the field with me, but I was just following orders...

It didn't really matter that my feet had gotten wet though, because soon after the crew arrived, hey had us all helping out to load the balloon into a massive blue bag anyway. I got pretty muddy as I tried my best to help out. Then, I found a frog amongst the wet grass and, as you might expect, proceeded in introducing him to Chigu. Hehe. She wasn't keen on meeting the frog though, and I got a telling off. :(

Once we had packed up the balloon we were off for breakfast. It was pretty good. A buffet stye affair At a farmers ranch not too far from where we landed. I had two slices of beans on toast, some salad, rice, potato salad, and some bacon! It was delicious. We were also served champagne, which I had two glasses of. The breakfast counter was also catered to the Japanese tourists with Japanese rice and miso soup on the menu.
After we finished breakfast we headed back to Cairns, where me and Chigu proceeded to sleep until lunchtime. Upon awaking, we had our traditional cheese and crisps sandwich lunch set and then headed out to the local shopping centre to do some shopping of the window variety :(.

In the evening Chigu decided that she didn't want to eat sandwiches anymore, so we splashed out on some pasta salad (reduced of course), a luxury cob and a pear each! Woop Woop! At this rate  We'll be going to restaurants next!!
After bought them, we bummed into the teacher I used to work with again! We had a long chat and got a few photos too. When we get back to japan, I'm going to email her and set up a date for us all to meet up and have a meal.
We ate our gorgeous meal by the sea, and them went for a walk about, finally heading to Mövenpick for our only real treat of the day: a delicious ice cream! Today we had pistachio nut flavour, which was awesome! Upon finishing our ice cream, we asked the two shop staff to have their picture taken with Turkey Ranger, to which of course they obliged. He's becoming quite the popular fellow!






Monday, 28 March 2011

March 9th - Cairns (Day 2)

     Just got back from our scuba diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. It was quite the experience. Both of us first time divers, so we were a little nervous but I found it easier, safer and much more fun than snorkelling.

     Ok, so at the start of the day, we had our first breakfast in this hotel, which I thought would be pretty grim, but it was fine. A selection of cereals, breads and drinks. Oh, and a collection of spreads too. I of course went for the Vegemite option! Oh yes!
     I made my cereals and put it outside on one of the tables on the balcony, then went back inside to fix myself a drink and some toast. At this point, Chigu came down stairs and I told her that I had put my breakfast outside on the balcony. She went outside and then came rushing back in with my bowl of cereals in my hand.
     "What's wrong," I asked.
     "Someone was eating them," is what I thought I heard her say, but she actually said "A sparrow was eating them."
     I had left them out only to have them pecked on and eaten by birds!
     After breakfast we made our way downstairs to wait for the bus that was scheduled to pick us up at 7:30 from outside of the hotel. Well, it got to 7:40 and it still hadn't arrived, so I went to go and ring the tour company from inside the hotel when the guy behind the desk pointed over to me and said to another man, "There he is now." And so, I met the bus driver.
    A quick bus ride to the wharf and we were quickly boarded onto our vessel. A large, two decked catamaran. There were only about 20 people on the tour though, so there was plenty of space. We were given a wetsuit, snorkel and mask set, a set of flippers and finally and most important, our safety number. 
     We headed in and got a table to sit at.
     On the way to the reef we were given a talk about safety onboard by a young surfer-type lad called Jed, who, while speaking about safety, made us all relaxed with his jokes and quips at the other staff members. Following this, we were treated to a presentation on the marine life that we would be seeing today (the discovery channel loving James York was impressed anyway). The marine biologist giving the presentation was a Brit named Matt and gave us a lot of details about the different types of coral, huge variety of fish,  and other creatures such as star fish and sea cucumbers. The presentation got me really excited, but got Chigu feeling nervous. Finally when we arrived at the reef site, the non-divers were allowed to snorkel, and us divers were given another talk about diving safety where we told two key things:
     1 how to empty our masks of water.
     2 how to empty water our of the respirator.
     After the talk we still had time to do some snorkelling before our dive because there were two groups diving, and we were in the second one. I got my fins (flippers) and mask on, and then made my way to the side of the boat ready to enter the sea. Chigu came up and put her gear on two. I also took a long foam buoyancy aid for her, too.
     I jumped in and had a bit of a swim around. There was nothing to see in the area where we gotten the water, so we had to swim around to the rear of the boat.  The wetsuits we were wearing acted like buoys, keeping us afloat, so it was really easy to swim around. Chigu wasn't too nervous and so we went out.
     At the back of the boat, the coral reef was really close to the surface so we went over the top and had a swim. There were soooooooooo many fish, it was a little off putting. Chigu was certainly perturbed. What I found out later on a mini snorkelling on my own though, is that the fish are more scared of us than we are of them. I saw a big blue coral eating fish going around munching all the coral, and when I went up towards him, he slowly swam nonchalantly into a cove out or my way. Then, when I went away, he would come out again.
     Anyway, onto the diving. We out weights around our waists and then the extremely heavy cylinder of air on our backs then made out way down to the rear of the ship, ready to head in. The guide was very professional and cautious leading us from practicing breathing through the mouthpiece out of the water first, then in the water and finally lowered us down giving us the OK hand symbol the whole time to check that we were indeed OK.
     I told the instructor that Chigu was feeling a bit nervous before we went into the water to make sure that he kept an extra eye out for her, which he did! He held her hand from the start to the end. The whole way round, Chigu had a personal tour!!
     Personally, I found the whole diving experience very relaxing (apart for the times when I seemed to sink because they hadn't put enough air in my suit to keep me buoyant!) and I found it fairly natural to be breathing underwater. The instructor had obviously taken another group around the same course before we did our tour underwater,so he pointed out a few of the highlights like a massive fish that fiercely protects its den, a huge clam, and a few other large fish. Then, out of the blue, a sea turtle swam up from just in front of us. It was so graceful as it glided up through the water to the surface. That made my dive. I was fairly pessimistic that we would actually get to see one, but we did! Yay!
     After the dive, we got back on the ship and chilled out. At this point, Chigu started to feel a little seasick, so I went to the bar to get her some tablets. They were 3 dollars each, and she had the last one! The bartender let me have it for free though. Another Yay! moment.
     She had the tablets and started to feel better just in time for lunch which consisted of Thai curry and rice with salad, potato salad, some cheese and... beetroot! Hell yeah! I had me some cheese and beetroot sandwich for lunch.
     After lunch we went to another location and the team came round asking who wanted to do another dive. I needed less than 2 milliseconds to decide. Chigu, too. Unfortunately, what we had decided was slightly different. I decided to go on another dive, Chigu decided not to. Additionally, the marine biologist was giving some snorkelling tours as well, so I decided to do that too. A busy afternoon awaited!

     We arrived at the second dive spot and with a lot less caution than the first dive, the instructor put our tanks on and got us to jump in. We were soon going down into the water, and it seemed a lot deeper this time. I had to equalise my ears a few times before I felt good. There were only four or us on this time and we had a little more freedom to move around, go up or down with the instructor keeping check on us every now and then.
     I saw a sea turtle on the last dive, and this time I was determined to find Nemo. Which I did! Although there was even more diversity this time: coral types, fish and other marine life, there was only one spot on the whole dice where I actually found a few clown fish hiding among some soft anemone. It was in a large cauliflower looking hard coral structure. Right in the middle was a pat h if soft coral with three orange and white clown fish looking up at me!
     The final thing I did on the tour was a guided snorkelling tour with the British marine biologist. It was only short at 20 minutes, but there was a lot to see and he was very knowledgeable. Highlights were seeing him out his hand in a  giant clam and seeing it close, holding a massive sea cucumber with water spraying out of it's arse (or mouth? Impossible to tell), and watching him touch various coral anemone and seeing their reactions. The tour was only short, so he let us all have it at half price: $10.
     After that, we returned our equipment and went back to cairns. Upon arrival, the whole crew formed a line by the side of the boat and high-fived or shook our hands as we left the boat.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

March 8th - Cairns (Day 1)

    Just finished our first (very) full day in cairns. We arrived outside the hotel at 6am and was told that check-in was from 2pm, so we had quite a long wait.
    Walking around Cairns about a million times today, we have discovered the one thing that we can't do without on our holidays... a supermarket. And look what we bought:
    Nasty cheap marmite and peanut butter spread. Additionally, we picked up a loaf of bread, 12 slices of cheese, 20 packets of crisps and a bag of cheapo cookies. Yes, we have secured ourselves lunch and dinner for the next few days! Crisp and cheese sandwiches? Yes please? What's that? You're bored of crisps and cheese? I bring you the ultimate alternative, marmite and cheese (and crisps)!
    We have to keep it cheap because our holidays are so long. Spreading $1000 over 3 weeks compared to if we just came for 5 days is very different in terms of daily budget, right?!
    But having bought all the food, it meant having to carry it around with us. D'oh! We headed down to the promenade anyway, and sat down for a while. The weather is not so great, but it is still pretty hot. While sitting there we got peckish so decided to eat some of the bread and cheese and marmite (only me for the last one, scooping it onto my finger and spreading it on the bread as best I could). And it felt great to have a little picnic by the sea in a small, quiet park.
    Until the birds came along.
    Big bloody seagulls fighting with sparrows to get front row seats, waiting impatiently for me or Chigu to drop crumbs of goodness for them. Which we didn't of course. Didn't I mention that we are on a tight budget this holiday? :P
    After our brunch, we decided to walk around a bit more and so we took in the scenery of Cairns. It's a quaint little town, reminiscent of (dare I say it) the Christchurch that me and Chigu visited last year. I'm sure we'd find it a little different considering the circumstances now. But basically, I'm talking about fairly small buildings, one or two stories, with a kind of canopy or cover over the pavement so you can walk along the paths in the shade or out of the rain (which we have seen quite a lot of today unfortunately). The town is very laid back and clean, but bustling with tourists (predominantly Japanese (I'll pick this up again later)) looking at the souvenirs or planning an excursion. There's also a lot of quality looking restaurants (where of course we can't eat at) and bars too. So yeah, a town very much catered for foreign tourists.
    Our hotel is called the Hides Hotel and it's pretty nasty. Not quite what we expected, but it was cheap, so I can't complain too much. Chigu can though. She is deeply upset that we don't have our own bathroom but have to share a communal bathroom and show room with the other guests. The room is also very run down with the only air conditioner being this:

    A bloody big fan right above our heads.
    The hotel is very central though and seems fairly quiet (I'll regret saying that in a couple of hours when I get woken up by an impromptu toga party down the corridor at 3am).
    In other news, I found a free wifi slot just outside the hotel so I shot a quick email off to my mum. I also found out that there is another gig lined up for me in Sydney, and that I'll have free drinks and get paid to play in Brisbane. A first for Cheapshot! I feel like my dad playing in working mens clubs with his band. I'm really excited though, and to have all his happening because of the friendships I have forged through the international chip community makes me feel very humbled. You guys rule!
    So, it's time for bed. I'm knackered and we're up early in the morning for our diving trip!!!!!
    Night night!

March 7th - Narita Airport

    "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! We're not gonna get on! They're gonna take off without us," was running through my mind as the help desk assistant worked frantically at her keyboard, trying to get me a visa to enter Australia with only 30 minutes to go before the check-in gates opened.
    "I'm sorry sir, but there is a strong possibility that I won't be able to get you a visa in time for your flight as the immigration office in Australia is going to close real soon," said the help desk assistant.
    "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck..."
    Let me back up and explain whats going on, now you have sampled a little of how I was feeling. Oh, and this is far from the start of the stress I have been through today.
    In the car on the way to Narita airport, and I'm pretty confident that we haven't forgotten anything this time. No problem. All double checked, 'I's dotted and 't's crossed.
    I asked Chigu if she packed the charger for the camera battery.
    "Nope, I thought you did," she said.
    "Right... I didn't pack it either."
    So we discovered that we HAD forgotten something, and something pretty important considering the camera only had half it's battery left.
    A quick trip to a local shopping centre near the airport was hopeless, so I hopped onto IRC with my iPhone (Internet relay chat) hoping that Alex or Eugene were in presence and able to possibly order one for me. As luck would have it, they were both available and both keen to help me out. After a quick chat with Alex, he offered to order me a charger for me to collect when I meet him on Friday! Yay, that little palaver was over! On to the airport.
    We got to the airport with plenty or time to spare, but the queue was LONG! While waiting I saw a familiar looking face. It was a teacher from the school I used to work at. What a coincidence! After a brief chat I discovered that she was heading to cairns with her daughter.
    We got towards the front of the queue when one of the staff members announced that passengers heading to cairns could come to the front of the queue. Excellent, but that must mean that we are getting close to boarding time. Anyway, we got to the front and finally got to check our bags in when it all broke down.
    "What name have you taken your visa in, said the check in attendant to Chigu, meaning York or Yamada.
    "What? I haven't got a visa," replied Chigu.
    "You haven't got a visa? Have you sir," she continued, talking to me.
    "Erm, no. I haven't," I replied.
    "Ok, then, you're going to have to go over there and we'll try to get you a visa, but I can't guarantee that we can get you one at this hour," said the check-in staff, voice full of worry.
    It started: "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuuuuuucccckkkkkk..."
    Chigu looked like she was going to burst out crying, and I felt the sweat start to break out on my brow. We had forgotten something a lot more important than a camera charger after all! I had no idea that we would need to get a visa before we booked our flights, hotels, excursions and of course: gigs! Things were getting serious, and i started to recall the time when I brought the wrong passport and couldn't get through customs a year before.
    At the help desk, a seriously stressed, but perfectly professional staff member took my passport and started the visa application process immediately. Another woman took Chigu's and began processing hers, too. With the speed at which they typed on the keyboard and the look they had in their eyes, I was almost relieved and convinced that things would be ok, but still, I didn't want to think like that and jinx it.
    Looking over at Chigu, she was looking extremely nervous and asked me if she should notify the woman handling her process that her name had changed from Yamada to York. I told her not to interfere as the woman looked like she knew what she was doing. However, things didn't turn out well.
    The woman looking after Chigu had applied for a visa using Chigu's maiden name: Yamada. Chigu did finally tell her that her name had changed, at which point, her face dropped.
    "James' application had come through," came a glorious announcement from the woman applying for me. Bad timing. Just as Chigu had found out that her application would need doing again, my visa came through.
    "Right, I'll meet you in Cairns tomorrow then," I joked to Chigu, which as you would expect, didn't go down too well.
    After a few more minutes of sheer terror wondering whether we would actually make it aboard the flight or not, the help desk assistant rang the Australian immigration office and got them to edit Chigu's application.
    All in all, it went through, we were amazingly relieved and (again) we got an escort (running help desk assistant) to the boarding gate, and made the flight.
    I was of course very relieved (and had a bit too much adrenaline running through my veins):